Saint Laurent sale brings in $932.8m

Jenny Barchfield

A Chinese bronze rabbit head, (R) and bronze rat head (L), which sold for 14 million euros each. Photo / AP

A Chinese bronze rabbit head, (R) and bronze rat head (L), which sold for 14 million euros each. Photo / AP

PARIS - An auction dispersing the vast art collection of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent lived up to expectations billing it as the "sale of the century".

The auction exceeded sales estimates and wrapped up without incident on Wednesday despite a storm of controversy over two lots China said had been stolen and insisted it wanted returned.

The collection of Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge brought in a total of more than 373 million euros (NZ$932.8 million) - and broke several world records - over the three-day auction, said the organiser, Christie's.

That was well over the 200 million-300 million euros the 733-lot sale had been expected to fetch.

Berge told reporters at the closing news conference he was "very, very happy with the result".

"I considered that with the death of Yves Saint Laurent that this collection had reached its end, that it was finished," Berge said.

"I am sure that those who bought these works of art are going to welcome them ... with the same passion that Yves and I had during so many years."

Saint Laurent, who is widely credited with modernising women's wardrobes by popularising ladies' pants, died last June aged 71, after a year-long battle with brain cancer.

The sale wrapped up with the much-anticipated sale of two rare bronze fountain heads - depicting a rat and a rabbit - that disappeared from China's Summer Imperial Palace in 1860. The Chinese government said it wanted the items removed from the sale and returned.

The disputed bronzes were sold to an unidentified telephone bidder or bidders for 14 million euros each.

Christie's officials declined to name the winning bidders, comparing the auctioneer's duty to protect buyers' privacy to a doctor's duty to protect that of his patient.

Berge added only that "it was not me".

Other pieces sold on Wednesday night included a 16th century, gilded Buddha statue, also from China, a collection of daggers from Turkey and India and a pair of Louis XV velvet couches.

Earlier in the week, Les coucous, tapis bleu et rose, (The Cowslips, Blue and Rose Fabric), a 1911 oil painting by Henri Matisse, fetched 32.1 million euros. That was a record auction price for a work by the French artist, Christie's said.

A rare Picasso from the Spanish artist's cubist period that was expected to be the sale's highest-fetching lot did not sell in the end.

Other top-selling pieces included a wooden sculpture by Romania's Constantin Brancusi that fetched 26 million euros, a 1922 painting by Piet Mondrian that had inspired Saint Laurent's iconic 1965 shift dress, and a snake embellished armchair that set a record for a piece of 20th-century furniture, selling at 21.9 million euros.

On Wednesday, though, it was the Chinese bronzes that stole the spotlight.

China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage wrote to Christie's last week urging it to stop the auction, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported.

An agency spokesman said Christie's had replied, but declined to discuss specifics, the report said.

Berge insisted the auction should go ahead as planned, and on Monday a French judge refused a request to halt the sale of the artefacts.

The issue threatened to further strain relations between France and China, frayed over French boycotts in the run-up to last summer's Olympic Games in Beijing and French President Nicolas Sarkozy's talks with Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese accuse of supporting Tibetan separatism.

Chinese anger led to protests and calls for a boycott of French products.

On Wednesday, dozens of people stood outside the auction's venue distributing pamphlets urging the pieces' return - but the well-heeled crowd of buyers and spectators breezed by them.

The sale was held at the Grand Palais, a mammoth glass-and-steel monument by the Seine River.

Hundreds of buyers placed their bids under heat lamps dangling from the towering ceiling, while Christie's staffers took telephone bids on dozens of specially installed phone lines.

From the start, the auction appeared to ignore the controversy - and the world financial crisis.

That was welcome news for a world art market worried that the global economic crisis is cutting into art investments, and for Christie's, which was betting on the auction to boost its flagging fortunes. The venerable auction house has announced hundreds of redundancies.

Berge said the results proved he had been right to ignore the advice of friends telling him to hold on to the collection until the crisis abated.

They showed that "when we provide buyers with quality works of art, the buyers are there", he said. A large portion of the proceeds from the sale are to support AIDS research, he added.

Saint Laurent and Berge started collecting art in the 1950s, when the designer catapulted to fame at the Paris fashion house Christian Dior.

As their fortunes grew with the launch of Yves Saint Laurent's own line, they continued to collect, working largely with private dealers and buying what caught their eye.

One of the most influential and enduring designers of the 20th century, Saint Laurent is credited with helping empower women by reinventing pants as a sleek, elegant staple of the female wardrobe.

He is also remembered for his ladies' tuxedo, see-through blouses, safari jackets and glamorous gowns that remain stylish decades after they hit the catwalks.

Luxury company the Gucci Group acquired the Yves Saint Laurent brand in 1999.

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